If you want to get a lecture from a health professional one of the quickest ways to do it is to tell them that you’re using the Fertility Awareness Method for birth control. In fact, you may not even need to go as far as talking to a health professional to get that response. You might get a similar response from well meaning friends and family members. You may be in store for a resounding and emphatic “the fertility awareness method doesn’t work,” followed up by “that’s how people get pregnant“.
If you want to get even more push back, then try breaking it to your doctor that you’ll be using fertility awareness to prevent pregnancy during your 6 week postpartum visit. It’s usually at your 6 week appointment that you’re examined and given the green light to have sex again, and of course it’s any responsible doctor or midwife’s job to check in with you about your birth control options.
What you may not realize is that if you’re not breastfeeding your new baby then your fertility (i.e. ovulation and thus your period) might return much faster than you think. It’s hard to imagine that just a few weeks after your brand new baby is born you already have to start thinking about pregnancy again. But trust me, you need to start thinking about it again. Just ask anyone who’s had Irish twins. It’s much more common than you’d think.
It’s ideal to start thinking about birth control before the fact, because I can pretty much guarantee you that you won’t be thinking too much about it in those first few weeks after you’re new baby is born. You might find that you’re taken aback in your 6 week appointment when your doctor brings it up. Heck, you may not even be thinking about sex. I mean, you just had a baby…literally. I remember after having my first baby, it took weeks for me to even consider wanting to do that again. And by that I mean push a baby out of my vagina. As you can appreciate, having another baby wasn’t exactly “top of mind” at the 6 week mark.
Using Fertility Awareness as a birth control method during your postpartum period is definitely possible, and can be extremely effective when used correctly, but there are a number of differences between charting postpartum and charting pre-baby that I want to share with you today.
I also recorded a podcast episode on this topic you may wish to listen to (click above – the episode starts at about the 4:30 minute mark):
1. You won’t be able to rely on your basal body temperature
One of the biggest differences between using fertility awareness postpartum is that you can’t rely on your temperatures. Especially when you’re breastfeeding, what you’ll find is that breastfeeding will delay the return of your fertility to some extent. Meaning that you won’t ovulate or have your period for awhile. For some women it can take several weeks for their fertility to return, and for others it can take several months to a year or more before they have their first period postpartum.
During this time you’re not ovulating (which is why you’re not getting your period), and as such, your temperature readings are largely useless. Since your temperature can only help you confirm ovulation after the fact, you can’t rely on it to help you figure out what’s going on. If you’d been charting your cycle before you got pregnant (and you relied heavily on your temperature because you didn’t really understand your mucus observations) you might find it difficult adjust to relying exclusively on your mucus observations. But difficult or not, when you’re in the postpartum period it’s time to put the thermometer down, pick up some toilet paper, and start checking your mucus.
2. You’ll have to rely on your cervical mucus observations
If you’re not quite sure how to check for mucus, you’ll want to take a look at this post for a more detailed run down, but if you’re already confident in your mucus observations it won’t be an issue for you. The reason why this is important is because you can get pregnant before your period comes back in the postpartum period. Since ovulation happens before menstruation, the return of your cervical mucus will be the best, and earliest, indicator that your fertility has returned.
If you’re not regularly checking for cervical mucus, and by regularly I mean every day, you probably won’t notice when your mucus comes back. If you’re checking for mucus every day, then you’ll notice when it shows up, and you’ll know you’re in your fertile window. You’ll get a heads up before you ovulate, and another bonus is that you’ll get an early warning of when to expect your period. Nothing like a big red surprise 4 months postpartum with no advanced warning.
If you’ve never been comfortable with your cervical mucus observations, and you’re not clear on the difference between a dry day and a mucus day you might have trouble with this. Every day might look like a potentially fertile day, and that’s just not going to work well for you as a birth control method if you can’t tell the difference between a fertile day and an infertile day.
3. You might have a complicated mucus pattern
The postpartum period is a time of significant hormonal upheaval, especially during the first few days after your baby is born. If you’re breastfeeding, then each time your baby suckles at the breast you’re getting an influx of lovely hormones coming your way. The combination of oxytocin and prolactin, that are released when you breastfeed, have an inhibitory effect on your menstrual cycle.
You can think of it as Mother Nature’s natural baby spacing mechanism, but having a barrage of varying hormone levels can also mean that you may experience mucus patterns that look much different to your pre-pregnancy patterns.
You might notice that you have some sort of mucus observation every single day, and if that’s the case, you’ll have to learn how to tell the difference between a basic infertile pattern of mucus and the mucus you see during your fertile window. This is kind of like being thrown into an advanced charting class you didn’t sign up for.
You may also find that regular breastfeeding triggers the release of arousal fluid, and you may have to learn to differentiate between mucus and arousal fluid on a day to day basis.
The Fertility Awareness Method that I teach has instructions to handle each of these situations, but if you don’t have adequate support, it can be hard to sort out all of the mucus patterns on your own!
4. Breastfeeding can delay the return of your cycles
If you follow the 7 Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding, you are much more likely to have a delay in the return of your menstrual cycles. I’ll briefly outline them here:
- Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life; don’t use other liquids and solids, not even water.
- Pacify or comfort your baby at your breasts.
- Don’t use bottles and don’t use pacifiers.
- Sleep with your baby for night feedings.
- Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding.
- Nurse frequently day and night, and avoid schedules.
- Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.
This is to say that if your baby relies on you exclusively for nourishment and soothing, you don’t use any formula, you maximize your skin to skin contact with your baby, and you don’t restrict feeding in any way, you’re much more likely to delay the return of your menstrual cycles.
As you can imagine, if your life doesn’t look like this and your baby isn’t attached to you 100% of the time, you can expect that your fertility might return much sooner. For instance, if you have to return back to work early, if you aren’t able to breastfeed, or if you have to supplement your breast milk with formula you might find that your cycles come back relatively quickly.
If you follow the ecological breastfeeding guidelines to the letter, then you can expect your period to stay away for at least 8-10 weeks. If you’ve heard of the Lactation Amenorrhea Method of birth control, you could consider the first 56 days of your cycle to be infertile.
With that in mind, the idea that breastfeeding itself can be used as a birth control method is not something I’d consider a “reliable” method of birth control. As your baby gets older, sleeps longer, eats solids, and drinks supplemental fluids your cycles could return at any time, and there’s no way to predict when you’ll start ovulating again ahead of time. That’s where fertility awareness charting comes in to help you identify your mucus patterns.
5. It might be harder to stay consistent with your observations now that you have a little one to take care of
This obvious point could be overlooked, which is why I’m making sure to include it. Your life will change dramatically when you welcome your little angel into the world. All of a sudden you won’t be getting much sleep, you’ll be feeding, changing, snuggling, rocking, etc….on repeat day and night, and you might not know what day it is half the time. This can make it difficult to stick to your charting routine…at least until you’ve established more of a routine for yourself.
How can I make it work?
I want you to know that I’m not pointing out these challenges to scare you or to cause you to question whether or not fertility awareness is effective in preventing pregnancy postpartum. I’m just laying out the challenges for you in black and white.
You’ll want to note that when used perfectly fertility awareness has been shown to be 99.6% effective in preventing pregnancy, and this applies to the postpartum period as well. There are a number of fertility awareness method methodologies that are “mucus only”, meaning that fertility awareness is just as effective when you use your mucus as the primary (or only) fertility sign.
With that in mind, in order to rely on your mucus effectively, you’ll have to get your observational routine down, and you’ll also want to use a reliable method of observing your mucus that allows you to distinguish between mucus, arousal fluid, vaginal cell slough, and semen.
You’ll definitely want to consider working with an instructor if you’re not confident in your mucus observations – if you’re having trouble differentiating between your dry days and your mucus days you’ll want some support from a trained fertility awareness educator. It’s actually not that difficult to understand and interpret your mucus observations when you have support. Having someone there to help you sort out the nitty gritty of cervical mucus charting makes a world of difference. And once you learn it you’ll be able to confidently rely on fertility awareness as a birth control method for the rest of your life.
Now I want to hear from you! Are you planning to use Fertility Awareness for birth control in the postpartum? Are you in the postpartum period right now and using fertility awareness already? How confident are you in your mucus observations? I’d love to hear your experience with it in the comments below!